Medieval churches and hilltop castles crowning gently curving slopes – emerald green in springtime, sprinkled with wildflowers like confetti – characterize the Casentino valley, provincia di Arezzo.
Towering over the tranquil Casentino town of Pratovecchio, you’ll spot the three jagged towers of the 12th century Castello di Romena, once a stronghold of the Guidi counts. Their presence is affirmed all over the area: in nearby Poppi, the crenellated 12th century Castello Guidi in local limestone stands tall above Poppi like a stalwart sentinel with sword raised.
Prototype of the Palazzo Vecchio of Florence and one of the finest examples of medieval fortification architecture in the Tuscan Casentino valley, the Castello dei Conti Guidi di Poppi gave refuge to the exiled Dante in the early 14th century. Legend says that he wrote a canto of the Divine Comedy’s Inferno here. Young falconer, Gherardo, training a falcon on the greensward in front of the Castello, told me proudly that Dante even mentioned Poppi’s falconers in his Inferno.
His wavy chestnut hair blew in the breeze as Gherardo swung the bait around his head in wide swoops, hoping to draw the Greenland white gyrfalcon hawk he was training back in.
“The air currents are enticing him today… he’s having a good time,” Gherardo said with a grin as the falcon swooped in towards us and then took off again. Passionate about raptors since he was a child, bearded Gherardo trains about thirty birds – and bears them proudly in medieval and Renaissance pageantry feste in period dress (hence the beard). He invited me across the lawn to see seven hooded falcons on a perch in his jeep.
I asked him if he ever thought about other young falconers training their birds right here out on the lawn in front of the castle centuries ago. “Certo!” he replied with a smile. He whooped to the falcon, swung the bait out in a wide arc and in swooped the bird, right to Gherardo.
In front of the huge bronze bust of Dante, he held the bird proudly on gloved hand so that I could take a photo. Behind the young falconer, towered the Castello Guido di Poppi. Did Dante really mention i falconieri di Poppi as he wrote a canto?
Gherardo can tell you the story…